The Type Character / Theory
Now we have established why typefaces influence our understanding of written language. But how do they do it? What are the characteristics of form and shape and how do these alter our interpretation of type? This topic has been on my mind since I started designing my first font, James. Back then, I was writing my Bachelors dissertation and was just beginning to enter the world of typefaces and their effects. Ever since, the topic has not slipped my mind. If anything, I became more and more curious, so that ultimately I decided to write these pages. So what do I mean when I speak about typeface characteristics?
The word “typeface characteristics” illustrates that typefaces have their own character/personality – just like people. These characteristics make them individual and give them a personal expression. Do you think I am exaggerating? It’s not me who started this comparison. It’s even embedded in the terminology of type. Looking closely, you can spot many linguistic connections between type and people: For example, the word typefaces contains the word face, the /g has an ear, the /K and /R a leg, the /b, /d, /p, /q a belly, the /T two arms, ... Fonts are like people: They own body parts and a unique personality.
The Character of a Typeface
The character of a typeface lets us perceive it as hard, soft, playful, serious, etc. It describes the look and feel of the typeface, it is responsible for the tone of voice in which a text speaks to us. The character of a typeface is created by many small design decisions, which are usually made at the beginning of the designing process. These decisions apply to all letters and thus determine the basic character of the font. The various design parameters and many other letter details ensure that no fonts look identical.
But what would a type designer look out for? What parameters make a difference? How do you create a new and unique typeface? In the following points, I give you an overview of small design decisions that in the end, can make your own font stand out.
The basic design parameters that apply to all letters are1
- the stroke width contrast
- the proportion scheme (classic or modern)
- the size ratio of the letter heights to each other (x-height, cap height, ascenders and descenders)
- the alignment of the contrast (wide nib - pointed nib)
- the width of the letters
- general basic shapes (round or square shapes, dynamic or static, ...)
- Opening of the counters
- Stroke ends
Depending on the typeface, these details vary greatly. This way, the character of a typeface may appear sober at times and very distinct at others. For example, the stroke width contrast can be low or very high, which has a direct influence on the effect of the font. If you start to combine all these characteristics together, you will – et voilá – design a new typeface which is unique (despite the hundreds of thousands of typefaces that have already been published).
In addition to these design parameters mentioned above, there are other characteristics of letter elements that contribute to the overall appearance of the font. Depending on the detail, these elements may appear on several letters in your font therefore, greatly altering its appearance.2 To be more precise, I will use the following example: There are a number of design options for the spur at the stem of the lowercase letter /n. This small detail is a frequently recurring element in the alphabet, so it is very likely to affect the letters /a, /b, /d, /g (two-storey), /m, /p, /q and /r. This means that more than 1/3 of the lowercase letters already have the same detail and thus guarantee a sense of belonging between them. In a whole page of text this detail is then already “hundredfold” 3 and has therefore been frequently noticed by the reader.
This optical consistency between letters is obviously crucial for a well-created typeface. A very frequently quoted sentence by the British type designer Matthew Carter (*1937, designer of the typefaces Verdana, Georgia, ITC Galliard and others) reads: “Type is a beautiful group of letters, not a group of beautiful letters.” 4 He describes that all letters must fit into the existing system of design parameters and characteristics, so that a sense of belonging between all letters can be guaranteed.
In addition to these frequently occurring design parameters and letter elements, there are a large number of other design options for individual letters, which are dealt with in the third chapter. For now, I would like to shift the focus to the different letters as a whole.
As you have just read, it is not only the individual letter that influences our feeling towards a font, but the recurring design choices that attach a distinctive feeling to a font. This way, another component comes into play: association. Associations are triggered when we have already seen the typeface in another context or have some other prior knowledge about it. In my very first example “Do you want to be my friend?” (first chapter) I already described my association with the Fraktur type. Without my connotation, which definitely influenced my perception, I might have perceived the typeface differently and would have come to a different conclusion. People without this prior knowledge might understand the Fraktur completely differently and would rather be friends with person two than person one. It’s subjective as each individual decides only for themselves, but it is important to acknowledge association as a crucial influence on how we perceive the character of a font.
Typefaces with a high contrast in its strokes appear elegant. Mono-Spaced typefaces look technical. Geometric sans-serifs appear cool. Helvetica appears neutral. Why? Zeitgeist!?
Some statements about type characters seem to have become generally established in society or have been learned over the years and I can only speculate about possible specifics as to why this came about. It may be learned. It could be that certain design icons had such a great influence on the design world that we now attach their values to the fonts they had used.
Vogue magazine, for example, represents the world’s highest fashion and elegance, while using the typeface Bodoni5, a classicist antiqua with a high stroke-contrast. I now connect these type characteristics with fashion and beauty. As a result, all fonts with a high stroke width contrast appear elegant to me.
Helvetica is considered neutral.6 However, the first sans-serifs in history were considered grotesque (synonyms: ridiculous, absurd), because omitting the usual serifs seemed funny or nonsensical.7 Over the decades, nonetheless, we seem to have become so accustomed to this style that we can now call these typeface neutral. Or is it the frequent use of Helvetica that made this typeface so commonplace to us that it has become background noise? Who knows?
Intended Usage of a Typeface
Obviously, the field of application also determines the character of the font. Do you need a typeface in a small size? The smaller the typeface is used, the less striking letter details can be seen and reproduced well. Hence, some design parameters are predefined at the beginning. In order for a typeface to be easily legible in small point sizes, the font should have a large x-height, its counters should be wide open, the contrast in stroke width should be low and the spacing should be open.
For display fonts (+16pt) the parameters vary completely. The more unusual the details, the more vivid the font, the more attention the headline will attract and appeal to the reader. For display typefaces there are no limits to creativity.
Type Character in a Corporate Design
For corporate typefaces, which are supposed to work both in small and large sizes, you are looking for a compromise. However, to transmit information clearly and concurrently to enable recognition is, on closer inspection, a contradiction in itself. Letters with a strong character often do not enhance legibility, as their individual form makes them appear extravagant. These letters can be a frequent stumbling block within your reading flow, slowing down the reading speed. Finding a compromise between legibility and recognition is therefore a difficult task for the type designer.
Typefaces to Remember
So, which possibilities are there to create a typeface with recognition factor?
Firstly, one can design a display typeface that has a strong and memorable character. In addition, however, it would be advantageous to commission a reader-friendly counterpart with a simpler design in addition to the character-strong version. This way, a strong recognition could be achieved by the headline version, but there would also be a similar, reader-friendly alternative.
Moreover, I call the second method “the Romain du Roi Method”. Strictly speaking, the Romain du Roi method is not a method at all, but rather a special design feature. The typeface contains one letter that stands out creatively, because it does not necessarily fit into the overall picture. I imagine this letter to behave similarly to a dancer in a group, who does not dance synchronously in the choreography. Their costume (stroke width, metrics, color) matches all other dancers’, but this individual stands out due to their own (dance) style. They will be remembered. It is just the same in typeface designs: One single letter may be sufficient to achieve recognition.
Thirdly, another way to create a recognisable typeface is to use it over a long period of time in a very media-effective way.8 That way, the typeface burns into our memory on its very own. The more often we see a typeface on posters or commercials, the more likely we are to remember the brand/typeface.
2, 3 vgl. S. 14, Subtext Typedesign. Martin Tiefenthaler. niggli. 2017
8 S. 63, Corporate Identity und Corporate Design: Neues Kompendium. Matthias Beyrow, Norbert Daldrop, Petra Kiedaisch. avedition. 2007